COVID-19 pandemic threatens positive train control implementation

A photograph of a train traveling by a beach.

The COVID-19 pandemic could hamper freight and passenger railroads’ ability to meet the December 31 deadline on positive train control (PTC) implementation, according to an April 30 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) to Senator Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi), chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

“Unforeseen issues, in particular the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) global pandemic, could delay railroads’ implementation and put railroads at risk of missing the extended deadline,” the report said

By December 31 of this year, the Class I railroads, some additional freight railroads, Amtrak and commuter lines must have PTC, a safety technology to automatically slow or stop a train in situations where the train might not be operating safely, installed on their networks. The technology must be interoperable with other trains sharing the network, meaning that a “tenant” train traveling on tracks that belong to another railroad or “host” railroad can communicate with the host railroad. The original PTC implementation deadline was in 2016 but practically all the railroads received a two-year extension because of the interoperability requirement. 

The report explained that a handful of railroads have not progressed enough through the latter stages of PTC implementation of advanced field testing or interoperability testing because of software and vendor issues. But the COVID-19 pandemic is causing “significant delays” in getting at-risk railroads the assistance they need because vendors aren’t able to travel for on-site testing or they can’t assist to the full extent because of social distancing protocols. Also, at least one commuter railroad had 10% to 15% of its workforce unavailable because they were sick or in quarantine because of the coronavirus. 

But the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and other trade associations also said the railroads are using the pandemic-related downturn in activity to conduct remote tests on PTC implementation and interoperability.

No railroads have indicated that COVID-19 effects would result in an inability to meet the extended deadline, the report said, referring to comments from FRA and a railroad association. 

Software issues have been an issue for some railroads because the PTC software often requires customization to a railroad’s unique operating environment, which can make achieving interoperability more complex, the report said. The report studied the railroads’ implementation progress between March 31, 2019 and December 31, 2019, and it compared the implementation status of the railroads between December 31, 2019 and March 31, 2020.

Vendor issues have also slowed implementation progress because the limited supply of vendors and PTC expertise means that vendors must work with several railroads simultaneously. 

The at-risk railroads and their partners are developing mitigation plans to ensure that the railroads have interoperable framework by the end of the year, but as a result of their compressed timeframes, “railroads face limited time to customize their PTC systems by the deadline, which could cause delays and other effects on operations as railroads implement PTC,” the report said. 

The report also said that the U.S. operations of the Class I railroads were closer to achieving interoperability with their tenants overall, although none of the seven Class I railroads had achieved interoperability with all of its tenants by the end of 2019. The report said that Class I railroads generally have more work to do to achieve interoperability because they have more tenants they must interoperate with, and those tenant totals range from between four to 26 tenant railroads.